Ang Lee is exhausted. There is no bounce in the walk of the usually low-key man who, many times over the past year, stomped around on a movie set, growling and roaring and flexing his muscles and hitting things, explaining to his special effects crew exactly what he wanted.
In other words, he'd been acting like the star of his movie, the Incredible Hulk.
In turn, the crew worked with drawings and models and computers, eventually creating the Hulk character. All of this was done after Lee had already directed his actors and edited the film around their performances. Then came the effects, then came the sound, then came everything else that a perfectionist like Lee keeps his eyes on at all times.
"I feel like I just walked through the Trojan War," says Lee with a laugh. "I'm drained. I just saw the finished film four days ago, and I could watch it like a story -- I'd only seen segments. So it was a big emotional moment for me. I don't know how other people will respond yet, but I can finally be at peace with myself."
That's more than can be said about the title character. The big green guy is the alter ego of the scientist Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), whose scientist father (Nick Nolte) experimented on himself years before Bruce was born, trying to come up with a method of human regeneration. The experiment failed, and mutant genes were passed on to the son. But the ensuing story is not just about what happens to Bruce when he gets angry (size, color, very special effects). Because this is an Ang Lee film, it's also an exploration of human emotion. It's about people dealing with people -- fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, ex-lovers. So it's really two films in one: a big, action-filled, comic book extravaganza and a somber Greek tragedy.
Bringing Hulk to the screen was not easy. The first script was completed nearly 12 years ago, after which many other writers tried a hand at it. The project came to Lee and his longtime screenwriter James Schamus (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Ice Storm; The Wedding Banquet) about two years ago, and Schamus reworked it a few times himself before handing it in.
"It's gotten to be these two middle-aged guys still playing chicken," says Schamus of his relationship with Lee. "You kind of dare each other. Ang is the kind of guy who does not want to look back, and whose life has become this constant, eternal film school. With Ang it's always trying to figure out a way to dare him to the next thing.
"And that extends to the screenwriting itself," Schamus adds. "I try to create big messes for him, not well-crafted things that he can just shoot. I try to create situations that are so scary, he'll be motivated to get into them. Today's metaphor is I try to create the cell, throw him in there, lock the door, turn on the tap, let the water start to rise, and see if he can get out."
Lee seems to relish that kind of treatment, but admits it sometimes gets to him. "Sometimes I felt anger trying to do this," he says. "It was like, 'Who is this Hulk? How do I find him?' I want to smash something! How do I do this? Did I set out to do something that's gonna destroy me? How do I live through this? I have almost a thousand people believing in me, and then we're ordering 14,000 prints. It was like, 'How am I going to get out of this?'"
Instead, he got into it.
"Sometimes I get ambitious and take on something that's bigger than me," Lee says. "I've been motivated to do one thing after another like that, and constantly I've thought that this might be where I fall. I don't want to kill myself, but it has to feel like I'm killing myself to do that. I think fear and aggression bring out some of my best.
"Size does matter," he continues, referring to his title character and the process of making the film. "The bigger size the fear is and the pressure is, the more my best starts to creep in."
Among the best things in Hulk, beyond the storytelling, acting and effects, is the look of the film. It's sort of a living comic book, filled with split-screen images and vivid colors.
"I was thinking about that for a long time," says Lee. "When I knew I was going to make this film, I did an experiment. I tried space-cutting [or editing], not just time-cutting. And I choreographed it, like how they used it sometimes on television in the '70s. I think it's just right now with how the media looks and how video games look. I think it's wonderful when you open a comic book, especially an American one -- it has a visual structure of its own. Your eyes go to the biggest picture. And then your eyes go whichever way you choose. It's all these wonderful things, and I have to translate that into a motion picture."
Lee seems to have a handle on everything he does. The only thing he's not completely sure about is his lofty reputation. Asked why everyone wants to work with him and will do anything for him, he's momentarily silent, then says, "I don't know."
Another few seconds pass, and he says, "I think they like my ideas when I describe my visions. I think my credits helped. Before I came aboard, they liked my movies. I talked to them about drama. I talked to the actors about Greek tragedy and about their inner Hulk. I think they thought they were being respected, that they were doing something inspiring."
He stops and smiles meekly and says, "And I think I'm a nice guy."